Come With MeRonald Malfi
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Part One: Headlight Ghosts
Part Two: The Floating World
Part Three: The Other You
Part Four: The Missing Circle
About the Author
“There’s such an assurance of narrative voice here, it’s easy to call Malfi a modern-day Algernon Blackwood. Mystery and mystique, yes, but the real wonder is how well it’s done. I’m gonna be talking about this book for years.”
Josh Malerman, New York Times bestselling author of Bird Box
“This is what it is to be transported: you might think you’re on solid ground, but Come with Me is a story that will carry you, inescapably, into the uncanny, the horrific.”
Andrew Pyper, author of The Residence
“Shines as both a nightmare journey of shadows and secrets, and a poignant testimony to love and loss. I read it in a single day because I had no other choice: it’s that damn good.”
Richard Chizmar, author of Gwendy’s Button Box
“A must-read for fans of Stephen King. Come with Me is so damn good, truly chilling and suspenseful, yet also hauntingly nuanced.”
Christopher Golden, author of Ararat
“Come with Me is Malfi’s masterwork – a haunting, heartbreaking novel about grief and secrets. Utterly engrossing and terrifying. Highly recommended!”
Brian Keene, author of The Rising
“An exploration into grief, and into the dark secrets within a seemingly perfect marriage. Part mystery, part ghost story, Come with Me chimes with rare beauty and page-turning brilliance. I surrendered to it completely.”
Rio Youers, author of Lola on Fire
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Come with Me
Print edition ISBN: 9781789097375
E-book edition ISBN: 9781789097382
Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd.
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP
First edition July 2021
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
© Ronald Malfi 2021 All rights reserved.
Ronald Malfi asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
For Wendi Winters
May 25, 1953 – June 28, 2018
Every marriage has its secrets. I understand this, Allison. I get it. Secrets are what allow us to cling to our individual selves while also being one half of a matrimonial whole, and can be as vital as breathing. Fleeting desires, errant daydreams—private things reserved for just one person, the keeper of those secrets, the attendant at the door of the vault. The small secrets are easy to keep hidden—easier, say, than the big secrets, the whoppers, the infidelities and closet addictions that, like some underwater beastie that must ultimately ascend to the surface for a gasp of air, don’t remain secrets forever.
I began the process of learning your secret, Allison, something like three months after your death. I call it a “process” because, much like a haunting, it did not reveal itself to me all at once, but rather as a gradual widening and clarity of circumstance. That’s just like you, too, Allison—layers of depth upon depth that require effort, require work, to piece together. There had never been anything surface level about you, and the secret that, like reverse origami, I unfolded after your death was no different. It’s possible, had I had my wits about me, I would have put the pieces together more quickly. Give me credit, okay? But as it was, I spent those first few months after your death in a sort of hypnagogic trance. You see, part of me had blinked out of existence right along with you—another consequence of the marital union—and what was left in the aftermath only retained the barest essence of a human being.
A cardboard box wrapped in packing tape on our front porch. So commonplace a way to have a piece of your dead wife’s hidden life come to light. And I’ll admit this right from the start, just so there is no confusing the issue later: I am not proud of where my mind went. Not at first. Something the casual observer may have overlooked… but I was your husband, not someone snatching a glimpse of your life through a window. And just like that, the aperture had opened. And then it widened. And then it widened some more.
I’m of the opinion that when it comes to secrets, there is no end to what we don’t know about a person. Even the person who sleeps next to us and shares our lives.
It was your darkness that made me fall in love with you, Allison. Darkness of depth, I mean. The way we can peer down a narrow little hole and have our vision robbed by the mesmeric distance of it all. The never-ending-ness of it. You were pretty, yes, but it was the unconventional predatory aura that clung to you—those deep flashes, like flares shot up into the night, that I would sometimes glimpse behind your eyes—that slowly drew me in. Your dark, caustic smile that hinted at some secret knowledge. The cruel way you gnawed at your fingernails, and how, on our first few dates, there were always specks of chartreuse nail polish sparkling along your lower lip. Some grand mystery in the form of a person.
I first glimpsed you alone on a johnboat at the mouth of Deep Creek, where the creek opens up into the bay. You were sitting there with your head down, a dark silhouette, getting drenched in the middle of a springtime downpour. I watched you from beneath the awning of the marina’s snack bar, curious about this lone figure bobbing along the choppy waters in the storm. Admittedly, I didn’t even know you were female at first—the distance between us, confused by the rain, made you look like an indistinguishable, immovable lump, sorry to say. I started to formulate a story about you, and how you ended up floating out there in the rain on that boat—that maybe you were contemplating suicide after suffering a broken heart… or maybe you were already dead, a casualty of a jealous lover, who had propped your body upright on that boat before casting you out toward the bay.
The scenario only g
rew increasingly more peculiar when three figures emerged from the water around you, slick as seals in their black wetsuits, and climbed into the boat with you. Only then did you move—a slight tilt of your head, perhaps to posit a question or to extend an order. One of the wetsuited fellows engaged the outboard motor and the johnboat carved a wide arc around the channel of the creek. When it stopped again, farther away from me, I watched as the wetsuits dropped over the side of the boat and vanished again beneath the turbulent, storm-churned surface of the water. You remained curled there in the rain, a dark semicolon rocking on the waves, your head down as if scrutinizing something life-changing in your lap.
The boat ultimately dropped you off at the marina before vanishing into the rainy mist. You had on an army-green slicker, your dark and shiny hair pulled back into a soaking-wet ponytail. Your face was pale, unblemished, almost boyish. You carried a notebook and a camera in a see-through waterproof bag.
I watched you from across the sparse floor of the marina’s snack bar as you took up a table far from me, ordered a coffee (black, no sugar), and began scribbling furiously in your notebook. For the next twenty minutes, I alternated between reading a Japanese-language edition of a Haruki Murakami novel and watching you. Finally, when I had summoned enough courage to approach, you didn’t even look up at me as you said, “We were searching for a dead body.”
This statement—a lie, you would later confess; you were out with divers from the Naval Academy examining oyster beds for an article you were writing for a local newspaper—rendered me speechless. And when you did look up at me, I could see that this had been your intention all along. To render me speechless; to knock me off kilter. And that was when I thought for the first time, Who is this girl?
So, in that regard, I can hardly blame you for your darkness. I can hardly claim that I was caught unawares by this most recent development. Not completely. I had been forewarned by the first thing you had ever said to me, the first words out of your mouth to a tall, gangly stranger with reading glasses and a chunky, tattered Japanese paperback in his hands. A lie meant as a joke that edged on darkness.
Who is this girl?
After your death, and after five years of what I would consider a pretty goddamn good marriage, I found myself asking that very same question all over again.
No one thinks when they first meet a person that there is some cosmic clock counting down the years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds until you will stop knowing each other. It doesn’t occur to most people when you meet the person with whom you wish to spend the rest of your life that, at some point, one of you will leave. Sure, everyone knows this on a practical level—everyone dies, no one lives forever—but no one looks their spouse in the eye on the night of their wedding and actually hears the ticking of that clock. Its sound is buried far beneath the flash and glamour of what we think our futures hold for us. But it’s there; don’t be fooled. It ticks for all of us.
You—Allison, my wife—died on an unseasonably warm and rather peaceable December morning, all things considered. At the time of your death, I was most likely wrapping your Christmas present, wistfully ignorant that you were hemorrhaging blood onto a scuffed linoleum floor. I was still in bed when you left the house that morning, awake but with my eyes closed against the bright sheet of daylight pressed against the bedroom windows. I ran a hand along your side of the bed as I stirred. The sheets were cold.
“Hey,” you said, bustling into the bedroom. “Did I wake you?”
“No, I need to get up. Where are you going?”
You were wearing a scarlet beret, ringlets of inky black hair corkscrewing down both sides of your face, and a houndstooth topcoat that looked like it might be too warm for such a pleasant and mild December morning.
“Harbor Plaza,” you said, hunting around the top of the dresser for something. “I need to pick up a few things. We’re going to the Marshalls’ tonight for that cookie-exchange thing.”
“Ah, that’s right.”
We would not be going to the Marshalls’.
“If I can find my damn keys, that is…”
“Check the mystic pedestal,” I suggested.
You tucked a tress of hair behind one ear as you crossed the bedroom and vanished into our walk-in closet. A few years ago and on a whim, you had returned home from a garage sale with a two-foot-tall marble pedestal. I had helped you drag it out of the car and up three flights of stairs—Lord knows how you managed to get it into the car on your own—and, after a time, it had somehow taken up permanent residence in our bedroom closet. It served no purpose other than to attract, inexplicably, random items thought lost from around our townhome with all the force and mystery of a black hole.
You returned from the closet dangling the keys from one hand. “Did you put them there?”
I shook my head.
“Well,” you said, “that sufficiently creeps me out. There’s no way I left them in there on that thing.”
“All hail the mystic pedestal.”
You smiled at me, standing there at the foot of the bed in your scarlet beret and topcoat. Something was on your mind—I could sense its urgency in you, desperate to come into the light of day. Something had been on your mind for a while lately. It had risen up like an invisible pillar between us. Over the past month or so you had grown distant toward me, had begun to close in on yourself. My attempts at drawing whatever it was out of you had been met with denial—everything was fine, you were just under a lot of stress at work, this too shall pass. But I knew better. I knew you better.
“Come with me,” you said.
I rolled over and looked at the clock on your nightstand. It was a quarter after eight. “Too early for me,” I confessed, spilling back onto my mound of pillows. Beyond the windows, I could see what looked like a hawk wheeling against a sky the color of bone. “Besides, I wanna try and get some work done.”
“Are you sure? We can get breakfast at the Rooster.”
Normally, I’d kill for a plate of French toast from the Fat Rooster Café—two slices of artesian bread as thick as Bibles, a dusting of powdered sugar, maple syrup as dense and rich as tree sap. Yet the prospect of negotiating around a throng of last-minute Christmas shoppers overrode any desire I had for French toast.
“Vile temptress,” I said, “but I’ll have to opt out, love.”
“Suit yourself.” You came to the bed and kissed the top of my head the way a mother would a sick child. “There’s coffee downstairs.”
“You’re a peach.”
“I thought I was a vile temptress?”
“Malleable persona. It’s part of your charm.”
“Oh, it’s true,” you said, and left the room.
It was the last time you and I would have a conversation, Allison. The next time I would see you would be in the county morgue, your body laid out on a steel table with a plain white sheet tucked up to your collarbone, an index card placed discreetly over the bullet hole in your skull. And, of course, I can still hear you saying it, over and over, like a curse or maybe a prayer: Come with me. Some may say that our destinies are etched in stone from the moment of our births, but I don’t believe that. I think that life is what you make of it and the choices are yours. Free will asserts that we all must live with the consequences of our actions… which is why it torments me to close my eyes and hear you say it, even though it’s only now just inside my head, Come with me, as if the more I think of it the closer I may be to cracking the code to all of space and time and finding a way to slip behind the bulwark of it all, the window dressing and beams and girders that make up the tangible world, and escape with you into that enigmatic, floating sea. Just go. Because my presence with you on that morning, had I gone, may have changed the outcome of what happened.
Some attack of urgency ushered me out of the bed soon after you’d gone. It was like ghost hands leveraging me up and off the mattress, forcing me into the approximation of a sitting position. I climbed out of be
d and stood there in a daze until the vestige of that sensation fled from me. Running my hands through my hair, I went to the closet and shut off the light. You were always leaving that light on, Allison. All the goddamn time.
Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I went to the windows that looked down on our uncomplicated little spot in the world—the fishhook that was Arlette Street, the parade of townhomes the uniform color of sawdust, the brown hills beyond bristling with the barren, skeletal lightning bolts of trees. I watched you come out of the house and wave to Greg Holmes, out for his morning jog in his headband and gray sweatshirt with the dark armpit stains. You said something that made him laugh before he chugged onward toward the four-way intersection at the end of our development. I watched you get into the Subaru (what you’d always referred to as the Sube), crank over the engine, and pull out of the driveway. Overhead, my friend the hawk was still there, describing pinwheels against the backdrop of silver clouds behind which the morning sun struggled to poke through. I watched the taillights of the Sube flash as you changed gears. Watched you snap your seatbelt into place (you always did this once you were in the street and never while you were still in the driveway, as if wearing your seatbelt made it impossible to drive in reverse). I watched you adjust your beret in the rearview mirror before you drove away. I watched all of these simple contrivances—things I had observed you to do innumerable times before—without so much as an inkling that all the while, that great and terrible cosmic clock was winding down, tick, tick, tick, mercilessly close to coming to a full stop on our time together in this life.
That article that the Herald did on you? Reporter of the Year? For your Christmas gift, I had it laminated and inserted into a polished wooden plaque so you could hang it on the wall of our shared home office. You were always too modest for such showmanship, but I was proud of you. There was the photo of you on the front page of the Community section, an enlarged version of the one that usually accompanied your byline. You look sly and dark in that photo; that unassuming pink scarf-thing you’re wearing around your neck does nothing to cloak your depth. You’d received the honor for your work with teenage girls interested in journalism, offering them space within your column to speak their mind about important issues. These were girls mostly from broken homes, girls who worked part-time while also attending school to help their parents—usually a single mother—pay the bills. For the most part, they did not live in the middle-class neighborhoods the Herald serviced, but that didn’t stop you from seeking these girls out and lending them a voice. You’d been touched by the gesture when they presented you with the honor at that banquet dinner at the Chesapeake Club, but then confided in me on the drive home (and after quite a few gin and tonics, if we’re being honest) that the money spent on the banquet could have been put to better use helping those very girls for whom you’d received accolades for helping. You also said reporters were by their very nature supposed to report the stories, not be the stories.